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Beaver County officials aren't banking on Shell petrochemical plant

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 9:35 p.m.

Even if Shell never builds a huge taxpayer-supported petrochemical plant in Beaver County, officials say it makes sense to use public money to examine transportation and business opportunities in the area.

Shell appears at least six months from deciding whether to spend billions of dollars on a plant on a 300-acre site along the Ohio River in Center and Potter, but local officials said they'll spend $250,000 to gauge transportation needs and learn what would spur development nearby.

A planner leading the two-year study that begins this month said the money won't be wasted if Shell pulls the plug on the plant, which would turn some of the region's gas resources into plastics. Shell officials did not return messages.

“The study doesn't hinge on whether the ‘cracker' plant comes or goes,” said Lew Villotti, director of planning and development at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county planning agency.

To lure Shell, one of world's largest and most profitable companies, state leaders offered a tax-free zone to build in and potentially more than $1 billion in other tax credits for using ethane from Pennsylvania and selling products to Pennsylvania manufacturers.

Villotti said the proposed development site figures to be “highly marketable, whether that facility goes in or not.”

Beaver County Commissioner Joe Spanik added: “Other potential clients are out there just waiting to see what Shell does with that property.”

The SPC-led study will look at roads, transit, rail lines and river access to and from the site, home to a Horsehead Corp. zinc plant, and how they could improve to serve a major industrial facility and related businesses employing thousands of workers. It will identify attractive sites that could be developed to complement what occurs at the Horsehead site, including land where natural-gas compressor stations, processing and manufacturing plants could locate, Villotti said. The most attractive sites would be “shovel-ready,” where buildings can be constructed immediately because grading and other infrastructure work is done, Villotti said.

Villotti said the corridor under study likely will resemble a football, with the narrowest points at ends in Lawrence County in the north and Washington County in the south, and the widest section in central Beaver County, where development of the Shell site would have the biggest effect on roads, business development and jobs.

Shell signed an option with Horsehead in March 2012 to explore the possibility of building the petrochemical plant. Late last month, Shell extended the option for six months.

Industry analysts predict plant construction could employ as many as 10,000 people. The state Department of Labor & Industry said last year that development of the plant could establish 2,000 to 8,000 permanent jobs, including 400 at the plant and the remainder directly or indirectly supporting it.

“They are doing their due diligence, but there has been a lot of activity going on that makes it look closer and closer to happening,” Spanik said.

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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